2019-20 Big Ten Bowl Season – Part 1
The regular season is over. Championship Week is over. But don’t let the despair of another long offseason without college football take over just yet…we have bowl games to wager on! There are nine games featuring Big Ten squads, including the Fiesta Bowl/playoff semifinal between Ohio State and Clemson. I am going to go in chronological order and breakdown each contest. The first article will focus on the first five games and the second article will focus on the four games on January 1 and 2.
Pinstripe Bowl – Michigan State vs. Wake Forest (+4.5) – December 27, 3:20
The Spartans beat Maryland and Rutgers to finish the season at 6-6. Wake Forest was once ranked but sputtered down the stretch, losing three of four to finish 8-4. Michigan State and the Demon Deacons have never met on the gridiron before and there are no common opponents for the two sides. This is Wake’s fourth straight bowl game as Dave Clawson has turned the Demon Deacons into a stable presence in the ACC. They average 32.8 points per game and very well balanced with quarterback Jamie Newman excelling with his arm and his legs. However, Wake Forest’s defense has been abysmal over the past month. Virginia Tech scored 36, Clemson scored 52, Duke put up 27 and Syracuse had 39 to close the season. Darrell Stewart is expected back for Michigan State but they have not been able to move the ball consistently all season and their defense has not impressed me against any good offenses. They shut down Rutgers and were good early but Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Illinois and Michigan moved it at ease on them. Michigan State is only 3-9 against the spread (ATS) this season and I think that goes to 3-10. Wake Forest has an offense that is very RPO-heavy and if Newman can return from injury (he is expected to play), I really like the Demon Deacons to win outright.
Holiday Bowl – USC (+2) vs. Iowa – December 27, 8:00
Iowa and USC have not met since 2003 when they met in the Orange Bowl. The Hawkeyes were a slightly confusing 9-3, finishing with three straight wins to close the season. The Trojans won their final three games to come in at 8-4. It proved to be just enough to keep Clay Helton employed in Los Angeles, at least for another season. The marquee matchup in this game is very obvious: USC averages 33.2 points per game and Iowa allows only 13.2 points per contest. Iowa is a very good defense. However, USC has played really good defenses and succeeded. They battled Utah and Notre Dame, both ranked ahead of Iowa in defensive rankings, and scored 30 and 27 points. The Hawkeyes have not faced offensive weapons like Michael Pittman before and I don’t think they can keep the Trojans below the high-20s. If USC reaches that level, can the Hawkeyes score enough to win? The Iowa offense has been very average and I am not particularly impressed with Nate Stanley. Give me the Trojans to win outright.
Cotton Bowl – Memphis (+7) vs. Penn State – December 28, Noon
This is a stay-away game for me, no question about that. There are so many unknowns and variables that I cannot get a good feel for it. Memphis will be playing without head coach Mike Norvell and there could be a number of assistants that bolt for Tallahassee or other jobs before the Cotton Bowl. Penn State will not have offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and there is no telling how motivated they are going to be. If I am leaning one way, I would lean towards the Penn State Nittany Lions but I like the over a lot more. Penn State had an early goal of reaching the College Football Playoff. A loss to Minnesota and at Ohio State took that off table but they still had hopes of landing in the Rose Bowl. The Wisconsin Badgers were very competitive in the Big Ten Championship game and that performance helped them earn the bid to Pasadena leaving PSU to head to Dallas. While the Cotton Bowl is an accomplishment, it will likely feel like a letdown to fans and players after being 8-0. The matchup on the field will be an interesting one as Memphis brings a lot of athleticism and speed to the table and PSU brings an elite defense. The questions for Memphis will be whether or not they can adjust to the changes in the coaching staff and how they deal with a top defense. Kenneth Gainwell is a terrific running back and receivers Damonte Coxie and Antonio Gibson are dangerous but I worry about the Memphis line against this PSU front. On the other side of the ball, the Nittany Lion offense is not going to wow anyone but they have a lot of young players that will benefit from the additional practice and it wouldn’t surprise me to see KJ Hamler have a big day and to see PSU run the ball very effectively against Memphis. Penn State has the more stable situation and I think they’ll pull away for a victory and wear Memphis down. I like going over the 60.5 as well but there are too many variables to actually play this game.
Fiesta Bowl – Clemson (-2.5) vs. Ohio State – December 28, 8:00
The last month of the season had a large amount of focus placed on the battle at the top for the number one seed. The debate was between LSU and Ohio State and Clemson was largely an afterthought. Meanwhile, the defending national champs were running riot over their opponents. Since a close call against North Carolina, Clemson has been dominant on both sides of the ball. The closest game in that stretch was a 45-14 dismantling of Florida State. The competition has not been all that stiff but it has been impressive nonetheless. Clemson now has the best cover percentage in the country (76.9%). Ohio State is certainly a deserving number two though and they have played much better competition during their unbeaten season. This is a matchup of titans. On offense, it’s the number three total offense (Clemson) and the number five total offense (Ohio State). The Ohio State defense is number two and the Clemson defense is number one. The Buckeyes have won 19 in a row but Clemson has won a remarkable 28 games in a row. Dabo Swinney is an incredible big game coach and I am going to roll with the champions until someone knocks them off. On defense, I think you can have some success against the Buckeyes if you can get to Justin Fields and pressure him. The Wisconsin Badgers were successful for some of the Big Ten Championship game and Clemson’s front is nasty. Ohio State is going to score but I think the Tigers can create some negative plays and get a few stops. The other side of the ball is going to be where Clemson wins this semifinal. Travis Etienne is averaging 8.2 yards per carry and has rushed for 1,500 yards with 17 touchdowns. He is a criminally underrated player. The receiving threats are mainly Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross while young players Amari Rodgers and Diondre Overton are coming on strong. The star power in this game is overwhelming and I think it will be a terrific watch but I’ll take the champs until they get knocked off. Give me Clemson at -2.5.
Redbox Bowl – California (-7) vs. Illinois – December 30, 4:00
California finished the season by winning at Stanford and at UCLA to reach 7-5 on the year. Their offense was not pretty at all and it nosedived during a four-game losing streak midseason but they managed 33, 24 and 28 in the final three wins. Illinois was a very pleasant surprise to most as they became bowl eligible with a win at Michigan State. However, they lost to Iowa and then were inexplicably smoked by Northwestern in the season finale. The Fighting Illini definitely played their best football in a four-game stretch in October and November as they stunned Wisconsin, won at Purdue, beat Rutgers and won at Michigan State. However, the offense was really poor in the final two games of the season and they will now be going against a stout defense in California. I am concerned that Illinois will not be able to move the ball consistently and it is a much easier trip for the Golden Bears than it is for the Illini. I don’t think this game will be particularly well-played or pretty but I like Cal to cover.